How we deal with data and information

Let’s learn how to see and present better!

I recently had the pleasure of attending a one-day course from Edward Tufte (professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale) all about presenting data and information. He’s a pioneer in the field of data visualization and his course helped me realize how much we all have to learn when it comes to how we deal with data. Since we do a lot of interpreting and presenting data and information, I figured I’d share some of my biggest takeaways, though I encourage everyone to attend his one-day course or read his books if you are able.
(upcoming Arlington VA, Raleigh NC, Atlanta GA)

4-page overview of Tufte-isms

Fundamental Principles of Analytical Design

Excerpt from his book, Beautiful Evidence, outlining these principles in further detail

  1. Show comparisons, contrasts, differences. Provide context to suggest what is significant about your data.
  2. Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systemic structure. Allow the data to speak to this structure.
  3. Show multivariate data (more than two variables). Graphics are useful when there are too many data to show in written sentences. Avoid two dimensions counting for one (area representing one variable). The best graphics might show four or five variables - consider maps (latitude, longitude, type of terrain, topography, landmark IDs)
  4. Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams. Large quantities of data do not in themselves cause clutter and confusion; these are failures of design. Avoid legends if possible; label the data where it lies as done on most maps so the viewer doesn’t have to jump around with their eyes. Every line, color, piece of text, and dot of ink on your page should have a reason for being displayed the way it is.
  5. Thoroughly describe the evidence. Provide a detailed title, indicate the authors and sponsors, document the data sources, show complete measurement scales, point out relevant issues. What is the display about? Who did the work? Who’s that? Where and when was the work done? What are the data sources? Any assumptions? What are the scales of measurement for all variables? Who published and printed the work?
  6. Content counts most of all. Analytical presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance, and integrity of their content. The best way to improve a presentation or a paper is to get better content.

How to give smarter presentations and have shorter meetings.
Tufte on the shortcomings of Powerpoint

  1. Near the beginning of the presentation, tell the audience what the problem is, why the problem is important, and what the solution to the problem is.
  2. To explain complex ideas or data, start with a specific point, then step back and describe the general architecture of the information; and finally reinforce it with a second specific example. This gives you two anecdotes to accompany the general theory. Our brains process good storytelling much better than hard data.
  3. Begin every meeting and presentation with a document and silent study hall (people can read three times faster than you can talk). Provide 1-4 pages and provide 4-5 minutes per page at the beginning of the presentation or meeting for this — people won’t do the reading beforehand . After already understanding the information on their own terms, audience members can then reference your material throughout and after the presentation rather than missing key points due to the transience of a slide deck. The presenter can offer a guided analysis of the material, leading into a discussion. “Narrative memos give authors the chance to fully communicate the thoughts behind their ideas and give meeting participants the chance to better understand full concepts”- Carmine Gallo, author of The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs
  4. Rehearsals are the single best way of improving one’s presentation work. Record yourself and listen back to it with isolated video and isolated audio, as painful as that may be.
  5. Show up early, something good is bound to happen. (especially if you’re presenting or leading)
  6. Finish early. People will seldom praise a presentation for going longer than it was meant to, but will often rejoice in getting out early.